President Trump’s push for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians stems from a belief that his broader goals of stopping Iranian aggression and Islamist extremism will not be possible without it, presidential adviser Jared Kushner said in a rare public appearance Sunday.
"If we're going to try to create more stability in the region as a whole, you have to solve this issue," Kushner told Middle East experts gathered at the Brookings Institution's Saban Forum. Trump, he said, "sees this as something that has to be solved."
But nearly a year after Trump named Kushner, his son-in-law and senior White House aide, as point person for what he called "the ultimate deal," there has been no public indication of where the initiative is heading.
Presumed participants in the plan — described by officials as a comprehensive package including Israel, the Palestinians, Arab governments and international backers — have been kept similarly in the dark, leading to widespread speculation and anxiety.
“If two states are in there, a major part of the [Israeli] coalition will object,” a senior Israeli official said last week. Any attempt to establish a Palestinian state in any form, the official said, “could bring down the government” of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“There are just rumors, but we hear there are moves to bring the Arabs on board and provide Israel with rewards and give the Palestinians pressure and threats and extortion,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Reports that Trump plans this week to declare U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the undisputed capital of Israel have elevated anxiety to panic in some quarters.
“This move will promote international anarchy and disrespect for global institutions and law,” PLO Secretary General Saeb Erekat said in a statement Sunday. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their capital. By taking sides on an issue long considered part of “final status” negotiations, he said, the United States “will also be disqualifying itself to play any role in an initiative towards achieving a just and lasting peace.”
Jordan’s King Abdullah II, whom Kushner’s team considers a key regional partner, warned last week that a U.S. decision to move the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv “must come within a comprehensive solution that leads to the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, living side by side with Israel.”
Any move at this point, said Abdullah, who was in Washington to consult with Congress, “could be potentially exploited by terrorists to stoke anger, frustration and desperation in order to spread their ideologies.”
Monday is a deadline for Trump to either announce the embassy move — as required by 1995 legislation — or issue the same six-month waiver that he signed in the summer, as has every president before him over the past two decades. Administration officials have indicated that Trump will again sign the waiver, but he will make a midweek speech recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
Kushner declined to comment on the embassy issue, saying that Trump was “still looking at a lot of different facts.”
“The president is going to make his decision. . . . He’ll be one who will want to tell you, not me,” he said. Haim Saban, the Israeli American media billionaire who heads the forum, an annual dialogue between U.S. and Israeli leaders, said he would call Kushner for the answer on Thursday — the day after Trump is expected to speak on the issue. “Perfect,” Kushner replied.
Kushner has stayed away from public view in recent months, as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has investigated ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. The format of Kushner’s Sunday appearance was an on-stage interview with Saban, a major donor to the Democratic Party, who said the two had established a relationship in discussions about the Middle East. But Saban made little headway in excavating details of the peace plan.
After Kushner explained that the Iranians, with “their nuclear ambitions and their expansive regional mischief,” along with the threat from the Islamic State and extremist ideology could best be addressed after the distraction of the Israeli-Palestinian issue was resolved, Saban responded with the question many experts on the region have posed.
“I understand that. But to achieve that,” Saban said, “the team has in it an entrepreneurial real estate lawyer, a bankruptcy lawyer — I don’t know how you’ve lasted eight months in this lineup. . . . It’s impressive that it’s still going. There’s not a Mideast ‘macher’ in this group.” Macher is a Yiddish word for a mover and shaker.
“How do you operate with, with all due respect, a bunch of Orthodox Jews who have no idea about anything?” he asked. “What are you guys doing? Seriously, I don’t understand this.”
Amid audience laughter, Kushner responded: “I’ll definitely say it’s not a conventional team. . . . It’s a perfectly qualified team. How is that?”
Three members of Kushner's team, including him, are Orthodox Jews. Jason Greenblatt, the White House special representative for international negotiations, came to the administration after serving as executive vice president and chief legal officer of the Trump Organization. David Friedman, Trump's bankruptcy lawyer and, like Kushner, a financial contributor to the Israeli settlement movement in the past, is the administration's ambassador to Israel.
The fourth team member is Dina Powell, deputy national security adviser and an Egyptian American who is a Coptic Christian. The State Department, which led decades of failed Mideast peace efforts under previous administrations, has been kept largely out of the Trump initiative.
According to administration officials willing to discuss the process but not the contents of the peace package, the plan is to release a comprehensive, final document covering all aspects of a deal. Rather than previous attempts to move from one issue to another in search of compromises between Israel and the Palestinians, the hope is that each party will find enough it likes in the overall document that it will be more amenable to those aspects it might previously have rejected.
One administration analogy for both the process and its final presentation is to a dinner party in which the host, rather than asking guests what each would like to eat when they sit down at the table, has already prepared a several course, take-it-or-leave-it meal.
To reach a bottom line, Kushner and his team have met repeatedly with leaders and negotiators in countries throughout the region. “We’ve tried very hard to do a lot of listening,” he said, to “learn what their red lines are . . . to find areas of mutual agreement, to find reasons to do things rather than not do things.”
He brushed off publicly expressed Israeli and Palestinian concerns, and insistence that there is no wiggle room on what he acknowledged were the “elephants” among the issues that have dogged previous efforts, including establishment of a Palestinian state and its borders, Israeli settlements, and Jerusalem.
“We’ve solicited a lot of ideas from a lot of places,” Kushner said. “There is obviously a lot of speculation. . . . ‘There is a plan, what is it? Are these four points in or out?’
“We all kind of laugh and say, okay, we’re just not going to play the guessing game. . . . We know what’s in the plan. The Palestinians know what discussions we’ve had with them, the Israelis know.”
None of the parties have been told what the others have discussed, according to administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the undertaking that, as Kushner noted, has had “no leaks.”
Underlying all of Kushner’s calculations are what he called the “regional dynamics,” which the administration believes have brought the Saudis and other countries influential with the Palestinians to find common cause with Israel — and the administration — against Iran and extremism. The region, he said, is “unifying against Iran’s aggression.”
Officials insisted that while Arab partners — including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates — have a role to play, the main focus of the plan is on Israel and the Palestinians.
But Kushner sidestepped questions about the administration's especially close ties with Saudi Arabia, and his own tight relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS.
Some experts attribute what appears to be a delay in release of the administration’s plan, initially believed set for the end of this year, to overreaching by MBS, who in recent weeks has arrested more than 200 members of the Saudi royal family and leading business persons, stepped into domestic politics in Lebanon and has been held responsible internationally for a humanitarian disaster in Yemen.
Kushner insisted that there was no delay, because there had never been a deadline.
“We’re businesspeople, we’re not politicians,” he said. “We’ve been very deliberate about not setting time frames. We’re not trying to do this the way it’s been done before.”
Morris reported from Jerusalem.